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Touring Natural Areas in Austin, Texas

There are natural areas to visit in and around Austin, Texas. On a recent trip, I made sure to visit a few, including the Zilker Botanical Garden and McKinney Falls State Park.

Zilker Botanical Garden

Overall, I was not impressed with the Zilker Botanical Garden, located at 2220 Barton Springs Road, though it did have some highlights. The problem I had with the garden was that they could have done so much more. The rose garden had hardly any roses (maybe they don’t grow well in Texas heat?), and a long path through the Oak trees seemed to exist only to show off little man-made “fairy homes.”

Pretty, but not many roses in the rose garden.

There were a LOT of fairy homes waiting for occupants. People who are into creating whimsical art likely enjoy it, and maybe kids do too. However, I think it would be better if, alongside the community creations, there were also natural materials and signs encouraging children to make their own–no glue needed. (It is also possible that I am a grump and you should ignore me.)

One of many elaborate fairy homes on the Woodland Faerie Trail. Photo from the Zilker Botanical Website

Highlights within the Zilker Botanical Garden

I did appreciate the Japanese Garden. Though I have seen larger and better ones, like in the Pacific Northwest (see Bloedel Reserve blog), this one had a nice koi pond and winding stream with little pools. A field trip of children really enjoyed it. Besides the koi fish, I also glimpsed a pencil-thin water snake, and some baby turtles–which I accidentally scared away when I opened my sun umbrella. Oops! Sorry.

Koi Pond in the Japanese Garden of the Zilker Botanical Garden.

For me, the highlight of Zilker was the Hartman Prehistoric Garden. Besides some great landscaping, they had a trail of actual dinosaur footprints (casts of the original) leading to a sculpture of the representative dinosaur. Here’s the sign that explains it, along with some photos:

A footprint cast of an Ornithomimus Dinosaur. The footprint is about the size of a hand.
Ornithomimus footprints lead to a well-designed pond and Ornithomimus sculpture.

I also enjoyed this man-made waterfall and resident dragonfly:

It was nice to stand by this waterfall in the Texas heat!
A beautiful red dragonfly poses for my camera.

McKinney Falls State Park

I really enjoyed my visit to McKinney Falls State Park. A woman Lyft driver recommended the park to me (it’s always worth conversing with your Uber/Lyft driver!). Located at 5808 McKinney Falls Parkway, Austin, Texas, the park is only 20 minutes away from downtown Austin.

After getting dropped off at headquarters, I went in and asked a ranger to please recommend an easy hike. He recommended the Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail – a 2.8 mile, flat, loop trail that would take me by some gentle waterfalls. Perfect!

The Star Sign on the lower right of the trail marks the park headquarters.

Because it was still early, I had the trail mostly to myself. Carrying my trusty sun umbrella and electrolyte-fueled water, I managed to stay cool enough. The trail took me through scrub oak, pine, and sprinklings of cactus. I took my time, because it was hot, and because I also enjoy birding.

Parts of the trail were sunny, like this. It’s good to go early to beat the heat.
Couldn’t photograph a bird for you, but here is a dragonfly that looks perfect for Halloween!

Upper Falls

The Onion-Creek trail passes by Upper Falls, which is actually a lovely swimming hole. This time of year, there is not much of a waterfall.

I love the roots of these trees, reaching into the pond.
Water trickles into the swimming hole.
Limestone surrounds the Upper Falls swimming hole.

Dogs and Heat Stroke

After completing the Onion-Creek loop trail, I took a side path to Lower Falls. On my way there I saw a lot more people, many of them with dogs. I saw a young woman who was very distressed because her little dog kept throwing up. The girl and her friend were not carrying any water. I pointed out the way to a bathroom and told them to get water for the dog, and get him out of the heat. Then I walked a bit farther and came upon a parked jeep with two rangers. They were talking to dog owners about the heat. They had a large water container in the back, so I told them about the young woman and her dog. They said they would check it out right away.

I hope the dog recovered. It’s too bad: people forget that dogs can only cool off through the pads of their feet – which are usually walking on hot ground – and their panting tongue. Because of their fur coat, they get much hotter than people, and can’t cool off nearly as well. Dogs die from heat stroke on the trail (and of course in the car) much more than people realize. Don’t bring them out in excessive heat, and if you do, bring water for them and take lots of rest breaks in the shade. Okay, lecture over.

Lower Falls

Lower Falls looked like a scene from another planet. Raptors flying overhead and a large expanse of flat limestone rock made the area look otherworldly. But a wonderful swimming hole awaits beyond the rock.

Is this another planet, or just the path to Lower Falls?
How on earth these two could stand to wear jeans in this heat and humidity!?  Must have been locals.
Water trickles across limestone rock to the Lower Falls swimming hole.
Campers and day-hikers enjoy the cool water of Lower Falls.

After viewing people enjoying the swimming hole, I walked upstream to be near the birds. Carefully crossing the slippery, moss-covered-stream bed, I found a place in the shade and sat with my feet in the water. A wonderful breeze kept me cool as I enjoyed looking through my binoculars at various birds. I wish I could have gotten a picture of the Mississippi Kites that flew overhead, darting and turning as they chased something in the trees. Later, a ranger told me that they are so agile, they can chase down a dragonfly. Below is a photo I stole from the Audubon Bird App:

A Mississippi Kite in flight. Photo courtesy of the Audubon Bird App.
The view from my ground-seat in the shade.

Hope you enjoyed these nature spots in and near Austin. If you missed my earlier blogs on the city, check them out here and here. Thanks for reading and please subscribe if you haven’t already.

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